In the lead up to 2020, Cyberpunk 2077 was one of the internet’s most anticipated games of the year. An epic RPG by the same Polish studio behind The Witcher, CD Projekt Red, in Cyberpunk 2077, you play as a customisable merc for hire named V in a dystopian, gritty cyberpunk future. Inspired by the tabletop game of the same name, you can customise your abilities and body using cybernetics and are guided by the voice of Keanu Reeves as a past-his-prime rockstar in your brain. Oh, and Grimes is in it, too.
But, when I experienced an hour-long demo at E3 last year, I was met with a disappointing takeaway: Cyberpunk 2077 may be inspired by dystopian sci-fi, but its values and representation is rooted in the past. In the game’s various regions, Haitian refugees and other communities of colour live in the slums. Trans identities—which are often liberated and celebrated in stories about transhumanism and cybernetics—are objectified in in-game promotional marketing for an energy drink called Chromanticure, and not represented in the game’s living world or its characters.
One such photo included a gender non-conforming model with a mohawk and bright purple jacket and blue skintight bodysuit seen visibly with breasts and a penis hugging the fabric—all to the slogan, “mix it up.” Back in 2019, I asked CD Projekt Red’s lead quest designer Pawel Sasko about the in-game image offensively exploiting trans identities and bodies. His response: “our goal was to point it out. To make people feel unconformable, to feel that this is not right.”
At the time, CD Projekt Red assured me that you as the player have the ability to experiment with your own gender representation and will have all the tools needed to fully customise your character. But, according to reviews for the game this week, the freedom to create your character seems to be reserved for cisgendered perspectives.
IIn the character customisation menu, you can—like your hairstyle, skin colour and eye shape—customise your character’s genitals. You can choose whether you want a penis or vagina—or neither—and that choice doesn’t define your character’s gender. But, your choice of voice, does. As far as CD Projekt Red sees it, a more traditionally femme tone of voice is assigned to someone who identifies using she/her pronouns while a traditionally masculine voice is assigned to a he/him. There are no nonbinary options. This understanding of gender as one of two paradigms rather than a spectrum already shows that the folks at CD Projekt Red don’t understand the trans and nonbinary experience and identities.
Cyberpunk 2077 is a product of a work culture that promoted working six day weeks for at least a year. The lack of a genuine nonbinary option could very well be a consequence of crunch time and something that was cut under the table to make the new delayed release date on 10th December 2020. But, as Polygon’s Carolyn Petit, put it, “as a transwoman with a voice that many would not describe as “feminine,” this direct linking of gender identity to having a voice that sounds “masculine” or “feminine” feels weirdly essentializing.”
Over the span of their 40+ hour journey, Petit said they didn’t meet a single trans character of note, but walked past several Chromanticure “Mix It Up” ads. It’s disappointing to hear that, even in a cyber future where Keanu Reeves is a former punk rockstar turned anarchist voice in your computer chip brain, you can turn invisible and implant literal blades in your elbows, a game like this restricts you and your gender identity and expression.
Cyberpunk 2077 is currently sitting at a 91 on Metacritic. Both IGN and Gamespot praised it for its intricately deep gameplay and some strong characters but note it’s buggy as hell, the world is really… not that deep bro and the game lacks a real sense of purpose. So, if you want to shoot some cybernetic thugs with electro bullets with John Wick, then it might be the game for you.
Cyberpunk 2077 releases on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S, PC and Google Stadia on the 10th of December.